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A federal judge ordered a mistrial Wednesday after a jury deadlocked over whether a former University of Tennessee scientist hid his work in Beijing in order to obtain U.S. government research grants.
The criminal trial of Anming Hu was the first after a series of arrests of researchers accused of concealing work in China while receiving American taxpayer-funded grants, and the outcome points to challenges that federal authorities face in trying to police scientific collaborations the U.S. says are boosting China’s competitiveness.
The six-day trial featured testimony from government agents about Mr. Hu’s work at the Beijing University of Technology, but also from University of Tennessee employees fumbling to explain disclosure policies.
After a little more than one day’s deliberations, the jury in Knoxville, Tenn., said it couldn’t reach a verdict on whether Mr. Hu was guilty of six counts of wire fraud and false statements.
Prosecutors alleged that Mr. Hu, who specializes in nanotechnology research, misled his university and the U.S. government by not reporting his Beijing post in University of Tennessee conflict-of-interest forms and in applications for National Aeronautics and Space Administration grants.
Mr. Hu, who lost his job at the University of Tennessee after his February 2020 indictment, testified during the trial that he saw his post in Beijing as a summer job that didn’t meet his U.S. school’s conflict-of-interest guidelines and so didn’t need to be disclosed.
"This job he had, this chair, a part-time, couple of weeks per year, it wasn’t a conflict of interest under the policy, and he was not required to report it," his attorney, Philip Lomonaco, said in summing up the case for the jury on Monday.
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The case against Mr. Hu is part of a federal government initiative begun around three years ago to stop the transfer of trade secrets and other proprietary information to China. Part of that effort focuses on U.S.-based researchers who are receiving government grants and conducting work or exchanges in China that U.S. authorities say may have involved transferring cutting-edge know-how, wittingly or otherwise.
In the past two years, federal prosecutors have escalated those efforts, charging around a dozen U.S. academics specifically with lying about their China work when seeking U.S. grants to support their research. Several have pleaded guilty, while others, including star nanotechnology experts at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argue they are innocent and are being prosecuted for administrative issues in an environment that has become hostile to scientists with China connections.
In Mr. Hu’s case, the mistrial shows what happens when the government couldn’t find evidence of espionage and so "tried to backdoor a fraud charge to a vague NASA grant provision," said Robert Fisher, the attorney representing the MIT professor, Gang Chen. Many federal forms, the lawyer said, "were never designed to be comprehensive as if they are top-secret clearance applications."
At issue in the case against Mr. Hu are two NASA grants he received in 2016 and 2018 for research on metal-joining and 3-D printing techniques. His attorney said Mr. Hu met the requirements of the grants and the University of Tennessee, where he worked in the department of mechanical engineering.
A 2012 law specifically restricts NASA from funding any collaborations with China. Prosecutors argued that Mr. Hu’s work at the Beijing university’s Institute of Laser Engineering was extensive.